That one gender-based occupational comparison that sticks in my craw

About 10 years ago I used two occupations — nursing assistants and light truck drivers — to make a case for gender-based occupational devaluation — that is, work being rewarded less because it’s done by women. This is an update.

I’m using slightly difference occupations because the classifications have changed. Also, the codes for the wage trend data source (Current Population Survey) don’t quite match up with the job skill classification source (O*Net). So it’s an imperfect comparison. But that’s life — there is no perfect comparison between different occupations. But see if you can learn (or teach) something from this one.

In the CPS, the occupational classification known as OCC2010 (developed by IPUMS for comparisons over time) includes “Nursing, Psychiatric, and Home Health Aides” (3600; hereafter NAs) and “Driver/Sales Workers and Truck Drivers” (9130; DSWs). That’s my basic comparison. To go back further in the series, I added health and nursing aides, orderlies and attendants (446, 447) from OCC1990 for the years 1980-2002. These are very big occupations. In 2022, there were 1.2 million NAs and 2.3 million DSWs. I only use those who were employed full-time and year-round in this analysis, for as much apples-to-apples as possible.

First, some basic description. I chose these occupations because they’re both highly gender segregated, close to 90% single-sex, with DSWs showing a slight trend toward integration since 1980.

For purposes of comparing wages, a first check is on education level. On this score, the occupations are remarkably similar, and have trended in step as education levels have increased. At present they are both about 80 percent high school graduates (this includes additional education short of a BA, which is more likely among the nursing workers).

Beyond education level, specific skills and abilities matter for wages, of course. For this I looked at the profiles from O*Net (Nursing assistants and Driver/Sales Workers). This is a giant database that includes a lot more information than this. These don’t quite match the CPS categories, in which nursing assistants include home health aides, and light truck drivers are included with driver/sales workers. With these codes, nursing assistant job requires more job training (1-2 years versus a few months to a year for home health aides), which puts them a little above DSWs, who are in the few months to a year category. But the list of abilities below looks quite similar for home health aides as for nursing assistants.

This is just to get a general sense of what the jobs require and to dispel some stereotypes. For a simple overview I’m just using abilities. For each occupation, O*Net provides scores for 52 abilities. I split them up here according to which job has a greater importance score for each ability.

Note that the nursing assistants require more strength (static, trunk, and explosive), stamina, and bodily flexibility; while DSWs require more dexterity, coordination, and spatial skills related to driving. I think if I reversed the pink and blue here I could have convinced you the NAs were the masculine job because of the strength requirements. Anyway, I don’t see any obvious reasons here why one pays more than the other — which is where this goes next.

Using the CPS data from March of each year back to 1980, I did a simple estimation of predicted hourly wages at the mean of controls for age, sex, and education (among people who worked at least 35 hours per week last year, and at least 50 weeks of the year), adjusted for inflation to 2010 levels. I excluded those who reported working more than 40 hours per week, which was more common among DSWs.

With these conditions set, the model shows that the female-dominated job — Nursing, Psychiatric, and Home Health Aides — is predicted to pay about $14 per hour in 2022, compared with just under $18 for the Driver/Sales Workers and Truck Drivers, or 78.4%. This has been basically unchanged since DSWs’ wages fell in the early 1990s (for whatever reason).

There is tons of research on the gender devaluation situation. If you’re interested in digging in, you could start with my old research with Matt Huffman (2003), and this paper by Asaf Levanon, Paula England, and Paul Allison, then see who has cited those recently.

I use this example in class (which is why I’m updating it today) to make the general point that segregation today — at the working -class level — largely tracks historical divisions between men’s and women’s work earlier in industrialization, with women doing work perceived as caring-related (nursing, teaching, other services) while men do more work seen as mechanical or brawny, like operating machinery and building things. Even when those female jobs require more strength and the male jobs are better done by people with more people skills. Here’s a nice chapter that reviews the cultural aspects of this as well, by Tristan Bridges, Catherine J. Taylor, and Sekani Robinson.

The Stata code I used is here (which includes the list of variables I got from IPUMS), and the spreadsheet with the data and figures is here; help yourself.

One thought on “That one gender-based occupational comparison that sticks in my craw

  1. Thank you for this, Philip.

    Elise Martel Cohen, Ph. D.
    Department of Sociology
    Loyola University Chicago
    1032 West Sheridan Road
    Chicago, Il 60660


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